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Tommy Lee Gets Serious

After a run of lite Hollywood fare like Man of the House and Men in Black, St. Mark’s alumnus Tommy Lee Jones took a gamble. He stepped behind the camera to direct his first big-screen picture, an independent film inspired by the murder of a

THE LOOK: Jones photographed June 15 at Liberty Bar, one of his favorite restaurants in San Antonio.

“Excuse me, monsieur. I must ask you to leave.”

The curt request echoes across the empty room, but the man in the Prada tuxedo does not respond. For three days now, he has been quick to heed the demands of strangers. This time, however, his back to the server, his identity cloaked by a wide swath of brilliant blue sea along the Côte d’Azur, he’s not taking any more requests.

He’s taking in the light-filled waters that drench the seashore across the wide boulevard in front of the hotel. There’s a much better vista from his penthouse suite at the highest reaches of the Hotel Martinez, an oversize seascape complete with a bird’s-eye view of Paul Allen’s $200 million play toy, Octopus, docked offshore. But he hasn’t seen the Microsoft mega-yacht, hardly the Mediterranean itself, because his every waking hour has been tied up in interviews. Almost all of them take place across this same street, at a spot the locals call Market Beach. There he can hear the waves lapping the shore and children playing in the sand, but he can’t see them. Not with his back to the water and his eyes on a TV camera.

“Monsieur, I must ask you to leave. We are setting up for dinner.”

This gets Tommy Lee Jones’ attention.

“Leave?” Jones asks. “Hell, we just got here.”

It’s 5 o’clock on the final Friday of the 58th Cannes Film Festival in May. In less than 30 minutes, Jones will be whisked off in a motorcade to the Palais des Festivals for the premiere of his pride and joy, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. He’ll be greeted by hordes of paparazzi, their flash bursts punctuated with comical pleas from the French shooters: “Tummy Lee! Tummy Lee!” Each will hope to attract the man’s attention, to draw his gaze, and to get the look-the one that hounded Harrison Ford’s character in The Fugitive, the one now focused on a tongue-tied waiter in an unmade dining room at the Hotel Martinez.

Voilà! A nimble maître d’ bursts out of the kitchen, scurries across the restaurant, and escorts his hotel’s most distinguished guest into a stylish art deco salon stocked with chilled bottles of Taittinger.

This is Jones’ third day at Cannes. He arrived from Paris on Wednesday and jets back to the City of Light two days from now on Sunday. In the intervening 96 hours, he will spend the bulk of his time going one on one with movie critics, TV reporters, talk show hosts, and anyone else who can promote The Three Burials.

Today is no exception. The day’s first round of interviews, with the French press, began right after 9 at Market Beach. By 11:30, his motorcade was en route to the Palais for a noon photo call. Fifteen minutes later, more interviews at the Palais, this time with the festival’s own television program. Fifteen more minutes and another press conference at the Palais. Then it was back to Market Beach, where he was hit with another two-hour onslaught from more French journalists.

There were occasional breaks, rare high notes that punctuated the white noise. Jones clearly enjoyed his Q&A with Chicago Sun-Times columnist Roger Ebert. Both men are passionate about film, and Ebert discerned some of Jones’ influences in The Three Burials, which range from directors such as Kurosawa, Peckinpah, and Godard to minimalist artists Donald Judd and Dan Flavin. By the time Ebert’s interview concluded, an impromptu version of Inside the Actors Studio was under way, with Jones taking questions from the audience at the American Pavilion.

Cannes may well be the world’s most important film festival, but it is not this Texan’s first rodeo. As the minutes tick away and the motorcade assembles out front, cast members discuss seating protocol and who gets to ride in which limo. Jones hikes up a pant leg.

“What do you think of these?” he asks his agent, Jim Wiatt, CEO of the William Morris Agency. Jones’ black socks are randomly stitched with numerals in an absurd, helter-skelter pattern. Wiatt stares at the socks then stares at his client.

“Where on earth?” Wiatt asks.

“Neiman’s. I’ve decided it’s very important to wear preposterous socks,” Jones says.

Out front, it’s time to load up. The film’s publicists muster the troops. On his way downstairs, Jones updates Wiatt on his San Antonio Spurs, who just clinched the Western Conference semis against Seattle. Spurs owners Juliana and Peter Holt are his friends. He’s no sports nut, but if it weren’t for sports, few would know his name. Acting may be Jones’ calling, but athletics was how he went from being a high school jock to an “elitist snob,” one of his preferred terms to describe his schooling at St. Mark’s and Harvard.

His father was a working cowboy who gave up riding and roping to make better money in the oil patch. Jones grew up in several West Texas towns and was in the 10th grade, attending Midland Lee, when his parents moved to Benghazi to work in the oil fields of the Sahara. Because they don’t play much football in Libya, Jones insisted on a Texas boarding school. The family settled on St. Mark’s.

Fitting in wasn’t easy. Dallas, he didn’t mind. His grandfather and namesake, Papa Tom Jones, was a Reconstruction refugee who arrived in Dallas County on a mule-drawn wagon in 1878 and set up camp along the banks of the Trinity River. Papa Tom’s grandson found St. Mark’s tough going at first, but his talents on and off the field soon earned him a place. By the time he graduated, he had learned what St. Mark’s expects in the way of achievement and went on to Harvard to meet greater expectations.

After he graduated from Harvard College, he landed a bit part in Love Story (1970). He cut his teeth on One Life to Live. A few years later, he was starring opposite Faye Dunaway in Eyes of Laura Mars (1978). He won an Emmy for The Executioner’s Song (1982), and by 1994, when he received an Oscar for The Fugitive, he had been a part of such memorable productions as Lonesome Dove, Blue Sky, and JFK. He’s since teamed up with Will Smith to top-line the wildly successful Men in Black franchise. Yet none of those films matters right now.

For the past year, Jones’ focus has been The Three Burials, which opens this fall. The film’s genesis was an actual event, the 1997 shooting death of a Texas high school student by a U.S. Marine. The youngster had been tending his family’s goats. Naturally, he brought along his .22, which he used to fend off rattlesnakes and coyotes and anything else intent on molesting man or beast. On the day of his death, a four-man Marine team was nearing the end of a 72-hour surveillance mission. Although they bivouacked a few hundred yards from the boy’s home, they testified under oath never to have seen the youngster before nor, for that matter, his family’s noisy herd of goats. The corporal who shot and killed the boy claimed that he did so in self-defense, when the 18-year-old shouldered his .22 and aimed in the direction of the Marines. The heavily camouflaged shooter felt obliged to defend himself after stalking the boy for almost half an hour. Without warning, he shot to kill from a distance of almost 150 yards with a scoped M-16.

Eight years have passed, and the killing is still classified as an open case in Presidio County. Jones deeply resents the injustice. On a personal level, his resentment can precipitate heated invectives about a family’s loss, a derelict judicial system, a government that kills its own. On a professional level, his resentment has led to a major new direction in his career, because Jones was not satisfied just acting in this film. For him, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada required more. He became its director.

“I’ve always understood my job as actor to be only one factor in a larger and more important equation,” he says. But since its inception, The Three Burials has been a much more personal endeavor, one that demanded he “manage the entire equation,” to use his words. Although he says he doesn’t want to hyperbolize his reaction to the first killing of an American citizen by a soldier since Kent State, it motivated him to assume creative control of the project and, on a more profound level, his career as well.

“Why?” he asks. He pauses and considers his response. “The entire equation is worthwhile for the storyteller and the audience when it’s well done.” Another pause, another answer: “When you have the jobs of actor, producer, writer, and director, any three will make the fourth a lot easier.” A final silence, and then he says: “You don’t have to ask anyone’s permission to get any of the jobs done right.”

Who better to turn to, then, than himself? This is what compelled Jones to take the director’s chair and to shepherd The Three Burials from start to finish. This is what led him to start fleshing out a script with Guillermo Arriaga (Amores Perros, 21 Grams). Pre-production got under way last August and filming in September at the WD, Jones’ West Texas ranch, as well as on location in Odessa and in Van Horn. In addition to Jones, who plays a straightforward cowboy named Pete Perkins, the cast includes Dwight Yoakam, a conniving sheriff with a hobbling case of erectile dysfunction; Barry Pepper, in his best work since Saving Private Ryan; January Jones as Pepper’s high school sweetheart of a wife; and Fort Worth’s Julio Cesar Cedillo as the Mexican vaquero Melquiades.

Inside the Lumiere Theater, as the movie begins, a completely unseen factor comes into play: the very hosts of the festival. Auteurs come and go. So have Brigitte Bardot’s curves. But the French cinephiles who worship film come to Cannes year in, year out, as they have since 1946. When was the last time you sat in a movie theater and heard applause as a film’s title appeared onscreen? It’s an ancient American notion, one more applicable to the generation that watched Tom Mix and Tony in a B Western, not Tommy Lee Jones in a contemporary art film. But in France, moviemaking is more art than commerce, and that becomes apparent as The Three Burials unfolds onscreen, its biblical twists turning oppressor into oppressed, hunter into hunted, and lawmen into lawless. This audience gasps. This audience guffaws. This audience chokes up as life ebbs and blood flows.

By the time the two-hour film concludes, an invisible line of paparazzi assembles in the dark, firing-squad style, a few feet from Jones. The closing credits roll, and the applause begins. The credits continue, the applause grows louder, the cameras begin to flash. After three or four minutes, the credits conclude, the lights come up, and all hell breaks loose.

At first, it seems only natural: a great star, his big-screen directing debut, a grateful audience. Then the applause crescendos. Morgan Freeman leads the charge. “I loved it,” the newly minted Academy Award winner says, nodding his head in approval.

Jones eventually runs out of people to hug: his wife Dawn, his screenwriter, his producer, his agent, his costars. Only one question remains: how long will these Frenchmen keep applauding? Judging from the length of the credits, the standing ovation lasts at least 10 minutes; several printed reports would later list it as 15. At various points, when the clapping falters, cries of “bravo” echo throughout the hall and rally the crowd. In a spontaneous outburst, the sold-out audience of 2,400 begins applauding in unison, thunderous claps by thousands of hands. Ecstatic and astounded, Jones begins applauding as well, showing his appreciation.

“These people know film. And they know when someone’s passionate about film,” Wiatt says afterward. “In all my years of coming to Cannes, I’ve only seen one other guy get this sort of ovation, and that’s Jack Nicholson.”

Photo ops and ever larger crowds outside turn the five-minute ride back to Market Beach into an hour-long undertaking. A sumptuous sit-down dinner, catered by Jean-Georges, awaits the 40 members of the film’s extended family, including Josh Groban, escorting January Jones; Shanna Eddy with her client Guillermo Arriaga and boyfriend Nick Grouf of Firefly and PeoplePC fame; a beaming Barry Pepper with his wife and his agent; and a phalanx of William Morris agents.

Out of thin air, a ghost from Jones’ past strides into the giddy gathering unannounced. Sam Shepard has nothing to do with this movie. He’s not even sure what it’s about. There’s only one thing on his mind.

“Where the hell is Tommy Lee?” he asks.

Jones is elated at this unexpected cameo.

“How’d they get you over here?” he asks, referring to the Shepard’s legendary fear of flying.

“Drugs,” Shepard replies with a grin. “Good drugs. That Xanax does the trick.”

Dinner is served, and for the next hour and a half, the oversize beach pavilion is the site of endless table hopping and story swapping. By 11:30, there’s talk of different parties, some on the town, others discretely tucked away in villas high in the hills overlooking the Mediterranean. Jones will have none of it. An attentive French waiter arrives with a selection of Cuban cigars, and for the first time in months, the man can kick back. The smoky conclave wiles away the night, discussing new story ideas, reminiscing about small people and small towns, and quoting Flannery O’Connor.

That’s when she strikes. She’s your better-than-average stalker and has been circling back and forth at the other end of the room. With her sleeveless dress, blond hair, and tan limbs, she needs no introduction as she moves in for the kill.

“Mr. Jones, you have been my favorite actor since I can’t remember when,” the twentysomething says in a decidedly American accent. “I know I’m being so rude, but can I bother you, can I interrupt you and have my picture taken with you? Please?”

“Why sure you can, darling,” Shepard interjects. “Set yourself up right here next to Mr. Tommy Lee Jones and get your friend to snap a couple of pictures of the two of you together.”

Jones has been had, and he knows it. He does a quick grip and grin, and another flash pops in his face. The young groupie goes for the daily double and turns to Shepard.

“Mr. Shepard, I can’t tell you how much it would mean to me if I could get a photograph taken with you as well,” she says.

Shepard’s smile evaporates. “Sorry, sweetheart, but you’ll have to talk to my agent, Martha Luttrell at ICM. She handles all my photo requests,” he deadpans.

The young lovely not only falls for it, but actually starts apologizing for the breach of policy. The entire table, Jones included, is in awe of Shepard’s BS.

The only one who’s not pleased about any of this is Jones’ bodyguard, a barrel-chested guy who has been shadowing his charge all day long. No doubt he is lethal. More important, he has his client’s best interests at heart. Another hour passes, and he speaks up.

“Mr. Jones, may I remind you that you have a press conference, monsieur, at 9 o’clock,” he says. He follows that observation with an enlightened suggestion: “Perhaps we can return to the hotel, and you and Mr. Shepard can enjoy your cigars on the patio there.”

Jones and Shepard leave Market Beach, cross La Croisette, and make their way through the Martinez to the patio outside the Amiral Bar. Not a head turns, not a conversation stops. Either these people have seen it all, or they just can’t see. Another Cuban goes up in smoke, and Jones decides to call it a night. That 9 o’clock press conference is getting a little too close for comfort. Shepard laughs him off.

“Just because you’ve got to go to work doesn’t mean I can’t stick around and have a little fun,” he says.

Jones and his burly shadow disappear.

Several more hours breeze by, and the conversation moseys from The Late Henry Moss to cocktails with Rosalea at Santa Fe’s Pink Adobe. A pale blue hue gradually fills the patio. The morning crew arrives, emptying ashtrays, carting off glasses, and replacing soiled tablecloths with fresh linens. A sleepy-eyed waiter, his bow tie loose and his jacket off, approaches Shepard’s table and listens nonchalantly as his guest talks about a filly he’s training for the track. Shepard stops. He looks up. The waiter speaks:

“Excuse me, monsieur, but I must ask you to leave. We are setting up for breakfast.”

After the close of the festival, the following item ran in Variety, the movie industry’s journal of record: “In one of the few surprises at the 58th Cannes Film Festival, Tommy Lee Jones walked off with best actor for The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, the neo-Western he directed. Mexican writer Guillermo Arriaga won for the pic’s script, which is a rarity: Cannes jurors rarely bestow double honors on any movie.”

Dallas writer Eric O’Keefe frequently writes for the New York Times.

Photos: Randal Ford